It was recently announced that Thriller Live, the venerable Michael Jackson jukebox musical, would be departing from the Lyric Theatre, its home of 11 years, next April. It is to make way for theatre refurbishments, with a new West End home to be announced in due course.
This seems fair enough. Only a fortnight ago, part of the Piccadilly Theatre’s ceiling fell in. And lest we forget, part of the ceiling of the Lyric’s neighbouring Apollo Theatre fell in during a 2013 theatre performance. The Lyric is in fact a few years older.
Nonetheless, I wonder if there will be a sigh of relief from Nimax, which will at last – depending on the new venue – disassociate itself from a show that could be described as a hot potato. There is no reason to doubt Thriller Live will be back, but if it were to announce its closure in 2019, an awful lot would be read into it.
Michael Jackson had been subject to accusations of child abuse for years before Thriller Live had its first performance, and had essentially weathered them: at his death in 2009 he had sold out a 50-date-run at the O2.
Did this year’s harrowing documentary, Leaving Neverland, change that at all? Superficially, no. Around the time it aired, the Thriller Live audience, quizzed by media interested to see if the adulation would wane, generally said the singer shouldn’t be confused with the songs, or vehemently refuted the allegations.
Barely a week after the documentary aired, the show’s PR was back to sending exclamation-mark-heavy emails about its ongoing success.
Still, it remains to be seen what sort of return Thriller Live will make.
The show shied away from the allegations, instead portraying Jackson as the agile ladykiller of his videos. Is that still acceptable? Maybe the show will get away with it if it slips back into the West End quietly.
But if I were one of the producers, I would be terrified of inviting a fresh round of reviews. I’ve reviewed the show before and not mentioned the allegations – I couldn’t do the same with a clear conscience post-Leaving Neverland.
Not only that, it faces a serious threat from the imminent Broadway musical MJ. Currently unseen, the show is facing a level of scrutiny Thriller Live never experienced. Interviews with book writer Lynn Nottage suggest that the musical – set in 1992 as Jackson prepares for the Dangerous World tour – will at least allude to the allegations of abuse.
It’s going to be very difficult to write a non-hagiographic treatment that pleases the Jackson fanbase, but if MJ pulls it off, the inevitable West End transfer would surely put paid to the scrappy Thriller Live.
Even if it doesn’t, I think the time has passed for an uncomplicated celebration of Jackson. We can’t praise the life of someone followed by such allegations without addressing them. Our society, and the West End, has moved on.
I don’t think Jackson’s music should be banned, but it needs to be contextualised correctly, and maybe MJ will do just that. Thriller Live has had a good run and, underpaying its touring dancers aside, I’m sure its creatives are coming from a good place. But the time has come for the show itself to beat it.